Pre-beach public safety messaging - lifeguards can influence behavior and prepare beachgoers to be safe.
Sep 16, 2022

Pre-beach public safety messaging - lifeguards can influence behavior and prepare beachgoers to be safe.

In a previous article we introduced the Drowning Timeline and focused on the “Prevent” phase. We argued that risk communication is a critical lifeguard skill and discussed a few ways lifeguards can improve preventative communication at the beach. In this short article, we’ll delve a bit deeper into the “Prepare” phase. Similar to last time, we take the position that ocean lifeguards should be active in this space and that these efforts, to be most effective, should be following best practice focused on motivating behavior, not just increasing knowledge or awareness. 

"From Szpilman, David, et al. "Drowning timeline: a new systematic model of the drowning process." The American Journal of Emergency Medicine 34.11 (2016): 2224-2226.”

The researchers who developed the Drowning Timeline describe that the “Prepare” phase consists of education in its different forms, usually away from aquatic settings (Szpilman et al., 2016). For ocean lifeguards, this means prevention activities that focus on people before they get to the beach. This sort of pre-beach “public education” has traditionally included school programs or other educational resources

While these educational activities are important efforts in the “Prepare” phase, the use of digital tools to reach thousands of people with beach safety messages is still emerging for the profession. Some lifesaving organizations have been working in this space for several years - Surf Life Saving Australia has entire coastal safety teams at national and state levels that engage in digital outreach (check out their Rip Myth Busting Campaign) and the RNLI in the UK have partnered with leading researchers to develop multi-component messaging initiatives to save lives. Lifeguards in California recently collaborated to produce a public service announcement to get the word out.

These examples reflect big time engagement in the digital space, but lifeguards can (and do) still reach the public with a consistent and creative presence with other digital communication channels. Whether your agency has just started an Instagram account or has Tweeted everyday for the past five years, there are loads of resources on how to engage in effective social marketing - here are a few examples for inspiration. Besides the nuts and bolts of how and when to post, remember that one of the important goals of your pre-beach messaging should be to motivate safety behavior at the beach.

Research in other health and public safety areas has shown that just because people know about a risk, doesn’t mean they follow through with behavior that reduces that risk. Effective initiatives often try to influence the different components of a person’s decision making process to achieve a desired behavior. Motivating and promoting behavior are entire branches of public health, psychology, and communications science; stuff that lifeguards don’t typically engage with. No need to go get a degree, but some of this theory may be helpful as you begin to craft your beach safety messages - This page is a good place to start thinking about behavior change models, see below for a beach safety example of the Theory of Planned Behavior. 

As you begin to think about how your lifesaving organization might start or improve your pre-beach messaging, consider how the lifeguard skillset is expanding. Superior swimming and physical abilities, first aid skills, and ocean knowledge are foundational prerequisites to being a great lifeguard. However, modern lifeguard organizations seeking to improve their service and effectiveness, for example, with creative and impactful pre-beach messaging, also need to recognize when their staff has non-traditional skill sets of value. Lifeguard social media whizes, data analysts, photographers, videographers, communicators, and educators all have a critical role to play in keeping people safe at the beach.

We’ve offered a few closing thoughts and an example of using a behavior change model to craft beach safety messages below. In a future article, we will explore another powerful element of using digital tools for beach safety messaging: measurability. Showing what you do with data is a key component to evaluation and risk reduction. Lifeguards have a few different ways of measuring “prevents”or “rescues” on the beach, which has gotten easier to do with technology, but how should lifeguards be using social media metrics? What can data from digital pre-beach safety messages tell us about the impact these efforts are playing in the community?

Lifeguards need to operate in the “Prepare” space

Lifeguard agencies have a responsibility to engage in pre-beach messaging and communication to the public. Lifeguards are excellent at preventing tragedy at the beach, but they are not everywhere at all times. Spending the effort on pre-beach messaging with the goal of motivating safety behavior will make the lifeguard’s job a bit easier on those busy weekends, and help keep people safe when they visit a beach without lifeguards. 

Motivating behavior is better (and harder) than raising awareness

Knowledge of hazards at the beach is important, but does not necessarily lead to safety behavior. Just because someone knows something (for example, what a rip current is) doesn’t mean that they will stop to look for a safe place to swim or remember what to do if they get caught. Pre-beach safety messaging, and any other type of beach safety education, needs to go beyond raising awareness or simply providing information. Behavior change models can help you craft messages that seek to influence the decisions people make.  

An example with the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB)

The Theory of Planned Behavior is one of many models that help explain why people do what they do. For a great resource specific beach safety, see chapter 16 in The Science of Beach Lifeguarding titled Beach safety education: A behavioral Change Approach

Attitude: Do I have positive or negative associations with the behavior? In beach safety (and other areas of health), this often relates to how people perceive the risk and evaluate how vulnerable they are - is it really going to happen to me?!

For beach safety messages, instead of posting “beware of rip currents”, consider influencing attitudes by saying something like “Anyone can get caught in a rip - swimming in front of a lifeguard is the best choice to stay safe”.

Subjective Norms: What does everyone else think about the behavior? Messages that address subjective norms play on people’s perceptions of what others think. Remember that different audiences might place more or less importance on what various groups, like friends, parents or teachers, think. 

For beach safety messages, instead of posting “never swim alone”, lean into subjective norms and comment on what a “good friend” or “smart surfer” does, for example: “Friends don’t let friends swim in the ocean alone.” or “Smart surfers know sometimes things go wrong - always paddle out with someone else”. 

Perceived Behavioral Control: Do I have control? Can I really keep myself safe? Perceived behavioral control has to do with whether individuals believe they are actually capable of the behavior. Sometimes a simple message could be the prompt someone needs to make a safe decision. 

For beach safety messages, instead of posting “High UV index today - wear sunscreen and seek shade!”, try incorporating how easy the behavior is, remind people they have the power and control to make it happen: “Avoiding sunburn is easy - apply and reapply sunscreen and seek shade!” 

Combo Power: We’ve just provided some examples on how you might craft messages addressing different components of the theory of planned behavior, but you can start to mix and match to maximize the impact that your pre-beach messaging has, increasing the likelihood it will actually motivate someone to follow through with the behavior. For example, a social media message encouraging people to stop and look for rips before they get in the water might look something like this:

“It’s a good idea to stop and look for rip currents before you get in the water. (Attitudes) Lifeguards, surfers and smart swimmers identify where the rips are pulling, and think about where the best place to get in the water is. (Subjective norms) It’s easy and doesn't take much time, (Perceived Behavioral Control), get in the habit of taking five minutes before you get in the water to look for rips and find the safest place to swim.” 

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